MONTREAL — You know you’re going to lose a hockey game when you have an entire intermission to plan for a 55-second 5-on-3 advantage and come out of it with absolutely nothing but surrendered momentum.
Not only did the Montreal Canadiens fail to execute in this precise situation down 1-0 to begin the third period of Tuesday’s game—staring at a golden opportunity to tie things up against the San Jose Sharks—but they also failed to even manage a shot on net. They were so deficient that they completely deflated themselves.
Two goals surrendered to Tomas Hertl and Logan Couture in succession coming out of that mess of a power play were almost predictable. You could see the frustrated Canadiens lose their concentration, and then they allowed those plays to go unchallenged.
They had played an excellent game at 5-on-5 up to that point, dominating the shot attempts 26-16 at 5-on-5 and stifling the Sharks, but they were left rattled by failing to generate much of anything on six power play opportunities.
That they couldn’t even muster more than one high-danger scoring chance over all that time would be mystifying if it wasn’t so damn repetitive.
Let’s face it, this CD is so scratched it’s become unplayable. Since 2018, the highest the Canadiens have ranked on the power play has been 17th in the league.
Personnel has changed dramatically since then, the coaching staff has turned over twice, but nothing has altered the team’s inefficiency in the category.
And it feels like it shouldn’t be as bad this season, with Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield proving to be a lethal combination, with Kirby Dach and Sean Monahan added as threats at other positions, and with Mike Matheson and Mike Hoffman alternating at the point on the team’s top unit. It shouldn’t be able rise to the NHL’s upper echelon with a makeshift second unit comprised of players who have either never quarterbacked an NHL power play or never habitually scored on one, but it should still be better than effective just 14.9 per cent of the time.
And yet, here the Canadiens are, once again in 31st in the NHL on the power play, failing miserably to find the balance between making plays and simplifying them when up a man—or two—and it has become an exhausting topic of discussion.
We asked Suzuki, after this 4-0 loss, if he’s tired of always having to talk about it—after he literally spent the entirety of his post-game media availability fielding nothing but questions about it—and he simply responded, “Yeah.”
“It is definitely the story,” he added. “We just didn’t score, so it’s what everyone’s going to talk about.”
How the Canadiens intend to solve it is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.
Martin St. Louis, who was a tremendous power-play player throughout his Hall of Fame career before becoming a power-play consultant for the Columbus Blue Jackets years ago, is searching for answers. The coach of the Canadiens has said over and over again that his team has to force its opponent into mistakes, that it has to strike fast rather than making eight-to-10 passes to find the perfect play, and he had to be close to pulling his perfectly coiffed hair out watching the Canadiens do anything but that on this night.
“As a player, you try to find quick answers,” he said. “I didn’t have the luxury of the iPad, but I’m pretty sure I would’ve been buried in there coming off the ice.
“We try to look in between periods, we try talking to players, and there’s certain different styles of PKs. I feel, overall, we’re starting to get more organized versus the different type of kills, because you can’t attack from the same angles against different types of kills, but I just felt tonight we were off.”
Credit the Sharks for their part in that.
They attacked Suzuki up high and didn’t let him do what he normally does—flash down his strong side and either shoot the shot that has netted him four power-play goals or make the cross-seam pass to Caufield—and his only counter was to syphon the puck down low to Monahan or reverse it up top to Matheson.
Neither player was able to do anything with it when Suzuki did, though.
“I’ve gotta be better,” said Monahan.
But the Canadiens all have to be when it comes to this part of the game.
In this game, they were uncharacteristically sloppy breaking the puck in. And once they did successfully cross the line in possession and set themselves up, they were indecisive.
They were hesitant and entirely stoppable.
That the Canadiens didn’t generate a better chance all night than the one that came off a broken play from Caufield on their first power play speaks to that point. And that play was infinitely better than the one they settled for off his stick on the 5-on-3.
“It’s up to us to be better,” said Suzuki. “It killed the game for us…it’s kind of a domino effect spiraling downwards.”
It pushed the Canadiens to 11-10-1 on their season, with some of those other losses a direct result of the same thing.
They have to either reimagine the strategy or start executing better on the one in place, because the games are only going to get tighter at 5-on-5 and they won’t be able to win without taking advantage of more of their power-play opportunities.